The Importance of Allowing Students to Request Breaks

by | Mar 24, 2019


It is not uncommon for children to find themselves in situations that require a great deal of patience. From waiting in line to sitting for extended periods of time, children are asked to remain quiet and calm—and not complain. It has become an assumption that children should be able to adjust to the needs of the situation, without guidance on how to avoid what can be uncomfortable circumstances. School is no different.

Students arrive to school each morning with the expectation to be ready to learn and behave appropriately. From early morning arrival until the final dismissal bell, students are expected to follow a detailed schedule, ready to conform to teacher requests, and are only granted permission to take breaks during designated times as decided by staff.

As adults, we still find ourselves in situations that require a great deal of sitting, listening, working, or other less-preferred activities. Over time we’ve used different styles of learning to acquire skills that allow us to appropriately request breaks. Through modeling, trial and error, and a variety of other methods, adults are able to identify and put into practice suitable strategies for removing ourselves from these uncomfortable situations. It is important to not only teach students these coping skills, but also encourages implementation and real life practice.

Why would students need a break?

Student experiences similarly reflect adult experiences. Students face personal struggles, exhaustion, and aggravation—much like the adults in their lives. Just like adults, need breaks throughout their workday, students need the same. Some activities are easier to work through than others, so it is important for students to have the opportunity to get up, move around, and talk with one another.

Consider some of the common reasons why students need breaks:

  • Frustration
  • Exhaustion
  • Discomfort
  • Discouragement

By teaching students why it is important to request breaks, educators have the opportunity to teach socially acceptable coping skills and enrich the educational experience of their students. Additionally, teaching students how to properly request breaks under a variety of conditions (i.e. during a difficult task or disagreement with a peer) can increase independence and reduce problem behaviors resulting from unpreventable factors.

A break simply requires incorporating a rest or pause during some type of activity. Breaks have no minimum duration expectancy or requirement to provide stimulation. Breaks come in many different forms and can be applied to meet certain needs of students.

Breaks already built into the schedule of the school day include:

  • Group bathroom breaks
  • Transitions
  • Recess

However, it is important to remember that bathroom breaks and class transitions are meant to be quiet and systematic, allowing very little flexibility for the students. These breaks provide students with little to no opportunity to stretch out and have short conversations with friends, so it is important to provide time for breaks where socializing is acceptable. Additional breaks that can easily be incorporated into the classroom setting include:

  • Whole Class Break
    • Initiated by the teacher and enables redirection of multiple students
    • Examples: stretching, brief class game, seat rotation
  • Independent Bathroom Break
    • Appropriate strategy for a student to remove themselves from the classroom and/or gain the opportunity to get up and move around
  • Breaks at a specified classroom area or break desk
    • Requested by the student or recommended by the teacher
    • Allows students to briefly separate themselves while remaining present for instruction
  • Walking breaks with an available staff member
    • Under the supervision of a staff member, students are able to walk a lap through the hall prior to returning to class
    • Student-initiated and great for students who would like to remove themselves from the classroom environment and/or would benefit from physical movement

It is important when implementing breaks to establish corresponding break expectations. When teaching students to request breaks, it is important to teach the following:

  • How to request a break?
  • When it is appropriate to request a break?
    • when a student is frustrated
  • Specific times when breaks are not available.
    • during testing
  • How long a break can be?
    • This should be consistent for all students and all breaks
    • Recommended length is approximately three minutes
  • How to return to class instruction following a break?
  • How many breaks are allotted during each class/school day?
    • This should be addressed if students begin to request frequent breaks
  • How long a student must return to class instruction before requesting additional breaks?
Examples of expectations to enforce during breaks include:
  • Start the timer as soon as break begins
  • Use an inside voice
  • Respect people and property
  • Quietly return to class activity as soon as the timer goes off

What happens if a student misses something during class?

One of the main objections by educators when discussing student breaks is the apprehension that students will miss out on instruction or other activities during these times. The reality is that students will often miss less instruction by taking a permissible break for three minutes than if they are required to stay in class and work through their discomfort or distraction. Additionally, students don’t often want to miss out on something that their peers are experiencing.

It is still important, however, to develop expectations for missed opportunities during breaks. The following should be decided upon specific to your classroom:

  • Where can students get notes from?
  • Are you willing to meet during another time to cover missed information?
  • What are they expected to do with unfinished work?
  • If a student is not present during class when the class earns a reward, does that student earn the reward?

Breaks are designed to teach students appropriate coping skills when facing undesirable conditions. The goal is for these skills to generalize, leaving students with socially acceptable coping strategies outside of school. For these reasons, it is crucial that breaks are not used as a form of punishment, leading students to believe breaks are a bad thing. Revoking recess eliminates an opportunity for students to burn some energy and enhance peer relationships. On the other hand, forcing a student to take a break can cause the student to dislike breaks and lose out on future opportunities to practice rational and constructive coping skills.